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30 steps to a more accessible website

Step 25: Using real horizontal rules (or faking them properly)

Suppose you want a divider between your posts. Regular horizontal rules (<hr> tags) are boring, so you use an image instead. This works, and can easily be made more accessible with the addition of proper alt text.

However, you can also go further and use a real horizontal rule, then use a little CSS trick to display it as an image in modern browsers. Older browsers and text-only browsers will ignore the CSS and just render a horizontal rule in their native style. (Text-only browsers generally use a row of underscores or dashes, expanded to fit the current screen width.)

Who benefits?

  1. Jackie benefits. JAWS reads the filename of any image without an alt attribute.
  2. Marcus benefits. Lynx displays the filename of any image without an alt attribute. If you use a real horizontal rule, Lynx will render it as a series of underscores as wide as the current screen.
  3. Michael benefits. Links does not display anything for images without alt text, so Michael does not have any indication that there is a divider. We need that alt text, or better yet, a real <hr> tag, which Links will render as a series of dashes as wide as the current screen.

How to do it

If you use images as horizontal rules, the easiest way to make them accessible is add an alt attribute to your <img> tag. You should add an empty title attribute too, to suppress the tooltip in visual browsers. So if you have this:

<img src="/images/fancyrule.gif" width="442" height="25">

Change it to this:

<img  alt="--" title="" src="/images/fancyrule.gif" width="442" height="25">

Do not go crazy and specify 80 dashes for the alt text. Two or three will suffice.

How to do it: advanced

The advanced (and preferred) technique uses an actual <hr> tag. However, since browser support for styling <hr> tags directly is flaky at best, we'll use a dummy <div> tag to display the image. Put the following CSS in your <style> section at the top of your template. (If you're using an external stylesheet like style.css put it anywhere in there.) {display: none}/*/*/a{} {
  display: block;
  height: 25px;
  background-image: url(/images/fancyrule.gif);
  background-repeat: no-repeat;
  background-position: center center;
  margin: 1em 0 1em 0;
hr {display:none}/* */ 

(For the height , substitute the height of your image. For the background-image , substitute the address of your image.)

Then in your template, where you want your decorative rule, do this:

<div class="hr"></div><hr />


  • All modern browsers will display the image instead of the normal plain horizontal rule.
  • Text-only browsers always ignore CSS, so they will display a plain horizontal rule (usually rendered as a series of underscores or dashes).

Further reading

« Step 24: Providing text equivalents for image maps | Contents| Step 26: Using relative font sizes »

This guide is adapted from Dive Into Accessibility by Mark Pilgrim and is shared with the GNU Free Documentation License v1.1